Monday, October 26, 2020

Absurdistan by Gary Shteyngart

Source of book: Borrowed from the library


It is hard to believe that it has been eight years since I first read Shteyngart in Super Sad True Love Story. In some ways, that novel seems all to prescient of the Trump Era, including the obsession with “fuckability.” Absurdistan is an earlier book, written in 2006, and is primarily a farcical satire of the George W. Bush era foreign policy, particularly the use of private companies to perform pseudo-military “security” missions. Shteyngart, of course, doesn’t limit the book to this, taking aim at Russian Oligarchs and Jewish culture, and writing the least sexy sex scenes possible. 



Misha “Snack Daddy” Vainberg is the son of one of those oligarchs that arose after the fall of the Soviet Union. He is educated at an American university (the fictional “Accidental College” which is both a play on the real-life Occidental College here in California and a spoof of Oberlin College, which Shteyngart attended), but becomes stuck in Russia after his father kills an Oklahoma businessman, landing the entire family on the visa blacklist. 


Unsurprisingly, Misha just coasts through life after this. He is obese and obsessed with food (the restaurant scenes are far more sexy than the sex), in love with a Latina woman he left behind in the Bronx, and has enough issues for a boatload of psychologists. One of which stems from a botched circumcision his father insisted he have, which left him with a deformed penis. 


Then things go even more wrong. Still devastated by his mother’s early death from cancer, Misha gets to see his father blown to pieces by rival gangster Oleg the Moose. And that is where the story begins to get more and more absurd. Oleg shows up at the funeral, of course, because that is how it works. Misha’s American ex-pat friend Aloysha-bob (don’t ask…) negotiates a mid-seven-figure settlement as both compensation for the killing and purchase of the family business from Oleg the Moose, setting Misha up for life financially. Misha, in a moment of weakness, is seduced by his (significantly younger) stepmother, who is out to get the money however she can, and then takes a crazy change to find his way back to America. 


To do so, he needs a fake passport, and it turns out that Aloysha-bob knows a guy who knows a guy who knows a guy, but it will take money. And a trip to “The Norway of the Caspian,” Absurdisvani, aka Absurdistan. This fictional country is kinda-sorta Turkmenistan, but also an allegory for Iraq and the other places the United States has gotten involved with in a bid for cheap oil. There, Misha can get a fake Belgian passport, and eventually return to the West, and his beloved Rouenna.


Speaking of which, she has, realizing he can’t return to the US, decided to move on to a certain literature professor, who just happens to be a very unflattering satire of Gary Shteyngart. 


Once Misha gets to Absurdistan, he gets his passport, but on the way back to the hotel, a civil war breaks out. Yeah, as I said, it gets pretty dang weird. From there, we go down a serious rabbit hole of foreign policy, which is, sadly, not nearly as unrealistic as the rest of the story, despite the author’s attempt to make it as ridiculous as possible. Halliburton and its subsidiary, KBR, feature prominently, with an open-ended Department of Defense contract for “cost-plus,” meaning a feeding trough in practice. It’s not that different from the real Halliburton and Blackwater, particularly in retrospect - the information that came out after the GWB years turned out to match Shteyngart’s farce in far too many ways for comfort. 


In order to enjoy Shteyngart, you really have to “suspend disbelief” as the saying goes. You can’t fuss about the details - it is NOT meant to be realistic in the normal sense, or even in the “magical realism” sense. But this isn’t safe comedy either. I already mentioned that Shteyngart is filthy and often explicit. But never remotely sexy. I mean, reading his writing might be enough to turn someone off from sex altogether. But damn, it’s funny too. His sex is so absurd and neurotic that you have to laugh or it is just too much. In this book too, there is plenty of violence. It isn’t played for laughs, exactly, but it is also absurd and over the top and horrifying. It is also uncomfortably accurate about our human tolerance for “collateral damage” particularly when the dead are poor or non-white. 


The other thing that enjoyment of Shteyngart requires is an appreciation for devastatingly good lines of satire. He hits home with regularity. Here are the ones that I liked the best. This one, from Misha explaining why there are some days the best you can do is drink yourself stupid along with your friends. 


Without good friends, you might as well drown yourself in Russia.


Or this exchange, as part of the discussion of a settlement with Oleg the Moose, about what to do with the German tourist who inadvertently filmed the assassination. 


“The German can disappear,” Captain Belugin said. He drew a slender Teutonic outline with his index fingers, and made the fluttering motion again. 

“That’s ridiculous,” Aloysha-Bob said. “You can’t just disappear an entire German.”

“There are eighty million of them, and they all look fairly alike.”


Or one of several passages involving “Jerry Shteynfarb.” 


Let me give you an idea of Jerry Shteynfarb. He had been a schoolmate of mine at Accidental College, a perfectly Americanized Russian emigre (he came to the States as a seven-year-old) who managed to use his dubious Russian credentials to rise through the ranks of the Accidental creative writing department and to sleep with half the campus in the process. After graduation, he made good on his threat to write a novel, a sad little dirge about his immigrant life, which seems to me the luckiest kind of life imaginable. I think it was called The Russian Arriviste’s Hand Job or something of the sort. The Americans, naturally, lapped it up. 


This is a brilliant blending of true autobiographical details with poisonous venom and wishful thinking. (There is no evidence that the real Shteyngart got around much - but he did marry a Korean-American woman, something he makes fun of in this book and in Super Sad True Love Story.) The book title is a play on his debut, The Russian Debutante’s Handbook


Misha isn’t a particularly likeable protagonist - he is arrogant and narcissistic and hedonistic. But that’s why he is so amusing. In one passage, he bemoans what he sees as the stupidity of the State Department, which just can’t understand that he is the perfect example of American values. He’s tacky, tasteless, consumerist, and not that bright, after all. 


Forget the Mexicans and Africans and such. In a sense, my American story is the most compelling of all. It is the ultimate compliment to a nation known more for its belly than its brain.


Shteyngart is someone anti-religion in his writings, in very much the way many secular Jews who came from dysfunctional religious backgrounds tend to be. (I know a few…) In this and in the other book of his I read, there is at least one brief scene that takes a bit of a dig at religion. One of them is the ethnic war in Absurdistan over which way the footrest of the Cross should point. (Both major groups are Orthodox...but they are mortal enemies. Also, both claim blessing from Alexandre Dumas, who did indeed visit cities in the general area of the Caspian…) The one that is the most pointed, however, has to be this exchange between Misha and his stepmother, Lyuba, after she claims that they worship the same god. 


“Of course there is a God,” she said.

“No, there is not,” I said. “In fact, the part of our soul we reserve for God is a kind of negative space where our worst sentiments reside, our jealousy, our ire, our justification for violence and spite.” 


Misha isn’t entirely wrong, sadly. White Evangelicalism in the last 10 years has seemed hell-bent on proving this true. 


Back to a more humorous vein. 


“Maybe Rouenna will come live with me,” I said. “Maybe I can tempt her away from Jerry Shteynfarb. Belgium is full of chocolate and fries, right?” 


Hey, any joke at the expense of the Belgians…The other weird stereotype is that all the Russian sorts seem to think that orange is the color of the West. It is true that the Communist Bloc countries have tended toward greys, but Orange is more the color of the 1960s or 70s than any timeless Western idea. Shteyngart plays it for laughs, of course. 


Once Misha gets to Absurdistan, he learns that there is a long history between the Absurdis and Jews - and apparently there is a colony of Jews still in the mountains somewhere. In practice, this means that whenever an Absurdi learns that Misha is Jewish, he or she says some variation on this:


“The Jewish people have a long and peaceful history in our land,” Sakha said, putting a shaking hand to his heart. “They are our brothers, and whoever is their enemy is our enemy also. When you are in Absurdsvani, my mother will be your mother, my wife your sister, and you will always find water in my well to drink.”


Over, and over, and over. With slight variations, but pretty much the same way from everyone. I kind of wonder, given other references in the book, if this is a bit of a parody of the Evangelical obsession with the State of Israel. After all, Misha is enlisted to try to get Israel to support the rebel Absurdis, because that is how you get America interested in a foreign backwater…


There are several amusing escape scenes. They would be terrifying to be involved in, of course, but Shteyngart instead has a very fat man running away and scaring everyone out of his path with the threat of crushing or suffocation. And also, this bit:


The sound of heavy machine-gun fire reverberated throughout the city. I searched excitedly for the telltale plumes of smoke that to me define a war zone, but the sky was given over entirely to the treacherous sun. It was time to do something manly and American. “Go, go, go, motherfuckers!” I yelled to Sakha and Timofey, pushing them toward our car. 


That’s probably the American thing to say in the circumstances. Once the war breaks out, anyone with sense tries to get the hell out of there. Including a bunch of potential refugees surrounding the embassy with their signs. Many are amusing. But one is devastating. 


My favorite, hoisted by a grizzly old pensioner, a simple retired laborer by the looks of him, whose sign was nonetheless written in perfectly correct English: WE ARE NO WORSE THAN YOU ARE, WE ARE ONLY POORER. 


And THAT is the uncomfortable truth about immigration, isn’t it? 


There are a number of flashbacks throughout the book, to events like the botched circumcision. The most amusing is the memory of Misha’s college days with Jerry Shteynfarb and Aloysha-Bob. In a scene involving an acid trip, Aloysha-Bob decides to toss his belongings away out the window.


“Why, if I may ask, are you dispensing with all of your personal effects? Are you indeed a Buddhist?”

“I’m not anything,” he said, breathing hard against the cold. “But I want to be a Russian. A real Russian. Not like Shteynfarb or Girshkin.” 

I sighed with pleasure at the unspoken compliment. “But real Russians love all the things you have thrown out,” I said. “For example, I am now asking my father to send money so that I may buy an Apple Macintosh computer. Also I would like Bose speakers and a Harman Kardon subwoofer.”

“You really want all that shit?” Aloysha-Bob asked…

“Oh, yes,” I said.

“That’s interesting,” he said. “I’ve been associating Russian life with spirituality.”

“Well, some of us are believers,” I said. “But mostly we just want things.”

“Oh,” he said. “Wow. I think Girshkin and Shteynfarb have really led me astray.”


Shteyngart riffs on this idea later when Misha meets an old playwright in Absurdistan. 


Quietly the Leopard Rises,” I said, “that sounds very familiar. Was it performed in Petersburg recently?”

“Perhaps,” Parka Mook said as he regretfully let go of his chicken leg. “But it’s not very good. When you put a Shakespeare or a Beckett or even a Pinter next to me, you will see how very small I am.”

“Nonsense, nonsense!” the gathered shouted. 

“You’re very modest,” I told the playwright. 

He smiled and waved me away. “It’s nice to do something for your country,” he said. “But soon I will die and my work will disappear forever. Oh well. Death should be a pleasant release for me. I can hardly wait to drop dead. Maybe tomorrow the sweet day will come. Now, what did you ask me?”


I’ll end with a quote that is ostensibly aimed at the former Soviet Union, but is also pertinent to the United States. Misha is fascinated with military equipment. (Me too, honestly...particularly aircraft.)


All of us who grew up in the Red Army’s shadow became lifelong aficionados of destruction, enthralled by anything that could bring swift ruin to the enemy. Like any empire in decline, ours was becoming ever more brilliant at knocking things apart, at raising palls of smoke over cratered school yards and charred market stalls. 


Or, as Don Henley and company put it:


Weavin' down the American highway

Through the litter and the wreckage and the cultural junk

Bloated with entitlement, loaded on propaganda

Now we're drivin' dazed and drunk


Been down the road to Damascus, the road to Mandalay

Met the ghost of Caesar on the Appian way

He said, "It's hard to stop this bingein' once you get a taste

But the road to empire is a bloody stupid waste"


Behold the bitten apple, the power of the tools

But all the knowledge in the world is of no use to fools

And it's a long road out of Eden


That, in the end, is probably the theme of the book. Misha is a microcosm of the problem, representing the empire living on its wealth with nothing deeper than the desire for more. The US consumer-industrial complex uses and discards countries the way Misha discards women, and devours the plenty of our planet while others starve. Don’t expect positive advice from Shteyngart. His is the difficult job of satire, not the equally difficult job of creating rational and workable policy. And he mostly succeeds. Absurdistan is a funny book. But also horrifying and thought provoking. Nobody writes quite like Shteyngart, and I suspect he is an acquired taste. But I have been glad I read both books. 


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